Ascent of Hvannadalshnúkur on 2016-05-15

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Petter Bjørstad
Pål Bjørstad
Date:Sunday, May 15, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
    Elevation:2110 m / 6923 ft

Ascent Trip Report

Sunday, May 15th:

I believe that I set the record for shortest time from one’s house in Seattle to the highest peak in Iceland—22 hours.

I left home at 1:35 PM on Saturday May 14th, got to the airport around 2, and flew to Keflavik, Iceland from 4:30 PM to 6:45 AM Sunday, Iceland time (7:15 flight time). My Norwegian friend Petter and his son Pål picked me up at the airport in their rental Honda CRV at around 7:30 AM, and, due to the nice weather today and a bad forecast for the next day, we decided to go for Hvannadalshnúkur, our main objective, today. So we loaded up my gear and headed for the trailhead, a four-hour drive plus stops for gas and food. We arrived about noon, and then took 45 minutes getting our gear organized—skis, boots, ropes, ice gear, clothing, and everything else. We hit the trail at 12:45 PM, unconcerned about darkness at this latitude in mid-May.

The first 600m/2000’ or so of trail was dry, but we brought our skis anyway—Petter and Pål had lightweight telemark skis they could put on their packs and leather telemark boots good for hiking, but my heavy randonnee skis and boots both had to be lashed to my pack, since I didn’t want to destroy my plastic boots (and feet!) by hiking in them up a rocky trail. We chugged uphill as fast as we could, making our first rest stop at 350m to fill up our water bottles and chat with some Icelandic skiers headed to a side slope. More steep, rocky/gravelly, and well-defined trail took us up a ridge past some rock formations to a flatter area, where, at 765m, we found a snowbank and put our skis on.

We now had 1000m of seemingly endless snow slope to ascend. I was using climbing skins, while Petter and Pål used klister wax on their telemark ski bases. I could definitely climb straight uphill more easily than they could, but their lighter gear and better skiing skill meant that their switchbacking was just as fast as my straight lines. We toiled up the initial snow slopes to a notch, and then pretty much straight up a huge slope that never seemed to have an end. The weather was stellar, with blue skies and great views behind us to the nearby ocean. We saw a few other parties, including two women carrying their skis downhill in their arms, apparently afraid of the relatively benign slope.

Near the top of the snow slope a very minor crevasse was bridged by a snow ramp, and not long after that the snow slope abruptly stopped and we were on a huge flat expanse of snow (apparently the “crater” of Öræfajökull volcano), with the icy pinnacle of Hvannadalshnúkur on the far side. We headed over the icy snow, with Petter and Pål soon leaving me way behind on their fast Nordic skis. I plodded on the best I could. A party of snow-moving showshoers was crossing the crater, and once near the pinnacle a group of climbers came off the summit, put on their cached skis, and cruised down past us happily.

Petter and Pål had stopped to have a snack and I passed them, heading straight up to a bergschrund which looked like the logical place to take off skis and start using crampons and ice axes. I got there first and rested, but when Petter and Pål arrived they thought we could ski uphill past a tricky crossing of the bergschrund at ridge corner. Skeptical, I followed them, but the nice platform our skis provided made the crossing OK. We stayed on skis and switchbacked uphill, our edges gripping well in snow that was really just intricate crusty ice crystals. I was a bit out of my comfort zone but soon realized this terrain was perfectly skiable.

Soon we were nearing the final summit dome, where the last obstacle was terrain covered in two-inch high knobs of hard blue ice—it was very difficult and awkward to ski up through these, but we were determined to make a complete “skis to summit” ascent. Finally, at 6:35 PM, we were at the snowy 2110-meter high crest marking the summit of Iceland. The weather was still clear, but the wind and cold did not make us want to linger long. We congratulated each other, took photos, and gazed out at the ocean to the south and the vast Vatnajökull icefield to the north.

Petter and Pål left first, and I peeled off my climbing skins, locked down my binding heels, and switched my boots to ski mode and took off at 6:55 PM, instantly finding the blue ice knobs basically unskiable. So I sidestepped down a meter or two to small patches of soft powder, made my first turn, and was down below the blue ice very shortly. I actually found that the icy crystalline snow of the summit pinnacle was easy and fun to ski on, and I made short work of the steep switchbacks above the tricky bergschrund crossing. The telemark skis of the Norwegians were a bit problematical on this terrain, and Petter in particular had to traverse and kick-turn to get down. Pål and I were faster and were soon at the bergschrund—he went first, his left ski on an icy bump and his right ski in space as he suddenly dropped down. I balanced my right ski on the bump, put my left ski in the snowed-in crack, and with pole-push motion got across to the safer lower slope.

After waiting for Petter to get across the tricky spot, I blasted tight turns down the lower slopes of the pinnacle and started the long traverse across the flat crater below. Once again, Petter and Pål were way faster, and my skinless randonnee skis were hopeless on the icy, flat terrain even with my heels unlocked. They had to wait a long time for me at the small crevasse at the top of the main slope. We easily crossed the little snow ramp, and then the fun really began, at least for me. The snow was now a heavy but velvety soft corn, the slopes pitched perfectly for nice turns, and the evening light at 8 PM at this latitude was magical.

I was fastest, given my superior downhill gear, but Pål, making expert telemark turns, was not far behind. Every hundred vertical meters or so, we’d stop to admire the views and wait for Petter, who was traversing and kick-turning above. Overall, the skiing was amazing--the scenery, and the knowledge I was descending a major peak, added to the good feelings. One minor mishap occurred when Petter found one of his skis in a small crevasse—it was too small to be dangerous and he only fell down harmlessly on the main snow surface.

At about 9:10 PM we ran out of snow after a 1345m/4400’ descent from the summit, the last 1000m straight fall line. We put our skis on our packs and started the long trudge down the rocky, dusty trail to the car. At the water break spot, the same place as in the morning, we ran into the four Icelandic skiers again—they had now adopted my practice of snapping their plastic boots wing-like onto their skis on their packs. We chatted for a while and headed down, passing them as we neared the car. We were at the trailhead at 10:15 PM. We didn’t use our rope, harnesses, ice axes, or crampons due to the early-season deep snow cover, and I was happy and surprised to have skied off the actual summit.

We were all very tired, and I in particular had been awake for nearly 30 hours, including a long flight and a 2000-meter climb. So we simply pitched our tents in the field nearby, ate some snacks, and went to bed as quickly as we could.

Monday May 16th:

We awoke around 8 AM, packed up our tents and camping gear into the over-stuffed CRV, and headed off counter-clockwise on the Ring Road, looking for more peaks to climb, especially “P600s” (peaks with over 600 meters of prominence). But it started raining not long after we got underway, and the remainder of the day was very overcast, windy, and intermittently drizzly. We stopped at the famous Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon, but the horizontal rain and wind made us bail pretty quick there. In the town of Höfn we looked for a restaurant, but they were all closed. I thought we might try to climb the nearby peak of Fjarðarfjall, since it was very close to the highway, but its steep slopes and crenellated summit ridge looked very daunting, especially given the weather and our effort of yesterday.

So we continued to the village of Djúpivogur, where we found a casual gas-station restaurant with Wi-Fi were we caught up on the weather forecast and email while we ate lunch. Pål noticed that the peak of Gunnólfsvíkurfjall, in the far northeast corner of the island, had a road to the summit, so we thought that might make an appropriate destination for today. So we got back in the car (Petter driving, Pål in the front passenger seat navigating, and me in the back seat, helping with maps and advice when I could) and started the long, winding drive north through Egilsstaðir and then north to our peak, over high (about 600m) snowy passes in the desolate plateau highlands.

By about 5 PM we were at the turn-off to Gunnólfsvíkurfjall, but were dismayed to find that the summit road was closed because it led to a NATO radar station on the summit. Figuring this was perhaps the only no-go summit in all of Iceland, we headed east along the north coast, buying gas in tiny Þórshöfn. But we could not find any lodging there. My guidebook mentioned a farm guesthouse 15 km down the road, but the lady innkeeper there said they were still closed for the season and could show us some school we could crash at, but that didn’t sound appealing.

Finally, we saw a lodging icon sign for the farmhouse of Framnes, near the lake of Skjalftvatn, and were able to procure a small three-bed cottage for the night. The northeast of Iceland seems to be a very remote, windswept area of moorland that is way off the beaten tourist path, especially in the off season.

Continue to the next report for our Iceland trip.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:2051 m / 6727 ft
    Elevation Loss:2051 m / 6727 ft
    Distance:24.9 km / 15.4 mi
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Skis, Ski Poles
    Weather:Cool, Windy, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:2031 m / 6661 ft
    Extra Loss:20 m / 66 ft
    Distance:12.1 km / 7.5 mi
    Route:Standard S Route
    Trailhead:Sandfell  99 m / 328 ft
    Time Up:5 Hours 45 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:2031 m / 6661 ft
    Extra Gain:20 m / 66 ft
    Distance:12.7 km / 7.9 mi
    Route:Standard S Route
    Trailhead:Sandfell  99 m / 328 ft
    Time Down:3 Hours 20 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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